Friday, September 3, 2010

Buying local:Right way, wrong way, NO way!

At the CIA we are buying some local meat for our St Andrews Restaurant. We have found that the Hudson Valley has a large variety of meats raised by farms within 60 miles of our location including, beef, lamb, pork, poultry and even some veal. We have been getting beef from two producers Meiller's in Pine Plains and Rykowskis in Rosendale NY. Both have quality beef breeds, Meiller's has some very nice Angus and Rykowski has Hereford. These livestock are on pasture and are supplemented with corn and fermented silage which fattens them up. Meillers has been reaching high choice marbling scores and Rykowskis are reaching at least select levels. We have aged the striploins and rib eyes from both with great success. With both of these farmers, sometimes the marbling is high, sometimes low but the cattle are young enough to still have fine fibers and therefore a quality meat.

I have experienced some very high quality strictly grass fed beef from a grower in mid state NY that had the distinct grass flavor but also some marbling. The rib eye we sampled was tender and savory. An innovator in this field is a company called TallGrass in Kansas. Bill Kurtis, ownner, has a philosophy of raising quality beef on pasture and is gaining some market share. Jo Robinson, the pasture feeding advocate, describes a good pasture fed beef farmer as more of a grass farmer, growing a high quality grass as the main food stuff.

In past posts I wrote about Scottish Highland cattle and their ability to fatten on grass and forage. They have a very fine fiber and produce a lower fat but quality meat. They are not typically raised commercially due to their excessive furry coat and very large horns but there are numerous farms throughout the US that do raise and sell their meat. NY state has over 35 farms registered as raising Highland cattle and many more in New England and Pennsylvania.

Recently we recieved a pasture raised Highland that was raised in Rhinebeck NY. It was not what I expected. The beef had absolutely no fat on the exterior and no marbling at all!. Surely this was not inducative of what this breed represents. It was by no means quality, but not because of the breed but how it was raised. The term "grass fed" doesn't simply mean the animal is allowed to roam a pasture and eat down all the grass, even though this is what, many people believe. High quality grass fed is placed on ripe fresh grass and then moved from pasture to pasture to insure the animal gets plenty of nutrition, even to the point of marbling. I have tasted numerous grass fed steaks that had marbling and might have graded low choice. I understand that Highland cattle develop less fat and maybe it was that it was an extermely hot time of year but this was a waste.

Another issue was the lack of USDA inspection. Farmers can be exempt from USDA inspection if they are selling directly to the end user. The meat must be stamped "NOT FOR SALE" as was the case on or carcass. I called the NY Ags and Markets dept. to confirm my suspicion. This meat was not legal for sale in a restaurant. But what about using it for demo in a school setting? The meat would have been consumed by students, therefore it would be considered part of their meal plan and in effect would have been sold to them, making it illegal.

The third issue was the price. I know that locally grown, fully pastured beef is going for a high price these days but this 500 lb carcass was over $3,000! I recognize the need for farmers to recoup their investment but this seemed excessive, especially considering the quality of the meat.

Lessons learned? Know your farmer if buying local. Local does not simply mean better! Be sure to purchase inspected meat if selling it in a restaurant or shop. Uninspected farmer's market meats are ok for home cooks that are not re-selling but a chef needs to be more cautious.

This post by no means was meant to discourage the use of quality grass fed beef or heritage Highland cattle but there is a right way and a wrong way to buy local meat and there was NO way we could use this example.
Over grazed pasture.